Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"So What? Who Cares?"

The question, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The question is blowin’ in the wind.

The winds of change are blowing across our continent. The winds are not named Mariah this time; they are named for Baby Boomers like me and my juniors. The 1945 calendar on the wallpaper of the Schowengerdt House in Warrenton marks the beginning of "my era" on the earth. "My stuff" from childhood is in museum displays now. I'm about to be a voice from the past. My theme is a phrase from a song that Bob Dylan wrote about twelve years ago:

Walking through the leaves falling from the trees,
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees.

There is no clear demarcation between my parents’ generation and mine. The border between generations is broad and blurred. When I retire next year I won’t be on the cutting edge of the Boomers; I’ll be behind it by a couple of years. The trailing edge of “The Silent Generation” overlaps my generation. I’m made up of both. If you’re in your fifties, you’re solid Boomer.

This national wind of change will last about 15 years. People over 50 are part of it. “Empty Nesters” are past midlife now and they are reorganizing their stance in the world for greater meaning. They are entering nonprofit life with technical know-how and with attitudes about learning that represent a big step forward for museums and libraries. They want to make a difference as never before.

To give a few examples, my late wife and I were in our 50s when we made a three-year pledge to the capital campaign of our church. We were also in our 50s when we made our first thousand-dollar gift to a nonprofit other than our church.

Our involvement in the capital campaign surprised both of us. We were at dinner with two friends who had agreed to spearhead the campaign. They were not soliciting us over dinner; we were just discussing how the campaign would be broken down into levels of workers. I volunteered to be one of the workers who would solicit a set number of other parishioners. Then I started thinking in terms of what would be possible if I selected a number representing “spare cash” in the weekly flow of money through our checkbook. I picked $20 and multiplied it out over three years. I said, “Do you realize that a commitment to allocate an extra $20 a week to this cause would enable us to make a pledge of $3,000 over the three-year campaign?” Our friends were amazed at the magic of breaking down a big challenge into something doable on a weekly basis. We pledged that amount on the spot.

My point is that we had financial means in our fifties that we didn’t have before then, and we wanted to use those means for the benefit of organizations that meant the most to us. During the same period in my life I became more actively involved in developing a curriculum for a horticultural organization to which I belong, and I served as President of my garden club and as a board member of a national association of state humanities councils.

The youngest Boomers are in their fifties now, and the eldest will retire this year and next. They constitute a wind of change in the nonprofits in town. The question that’s blowing in the wind is the one we ask of the institutions our parents set up: So what? Who cares?

In the museum and library fields there is a natural tendency to think about the stewardship of objects or environments. We want to create clean, well-lit, “inviting” spaces for the public. We want to provide “access” to information of all kinds.

Ten years ago when I said to a group of library people that I supposed the inherent mission of a library was to nurture “better readers,” they recoiled. They wanted nothing to do with helping people appreciate good writing. That couldn’t be considered part of a library’s mission.

Seven years ago I said to a group of museum supporters, “How do you imagine you will use the new space you think you need to succeed? If you had twice the space, would the museum be twice as boring?” Of course, when people start to imagine a lot more space, a lot of the space is empty, so people can move around better and have a better experience. I suggested they create the space they dream about by subtracting display cases and objects in the current square footage. Pull your vision of a better future into your present; don’t wait for it. This was the beginning of my conversion to visitor-centered thinking.

Visitor-centered thinking goes well beyond creature comforts like clean carpets and a quiet, well-lit room. Those are helpful, to be sure, but they are not in the realm of “So what? Who cares?” Visitor-centered thinking is concerned with engaging and nurturing the intelligence of the visitor. That is the only source of an answer to “So what? Who cares?” That is the beating heart of an educational mission.

I see failures of stewardship everywhere I go. The maintenance problems of museums and historic homes are often crushing. People base appeals on what they suppose to be the inherent importance of the institution. Unfortunately, the mere existence of an institution does not provide an answer to “So what? Who cares?” The institution has to provide an active benefit to the population.

There is hope in that proposition. It is possible to become a community’s engine of learning even while the wallpaper peels off and the place needs better climate control. In fact, it is necessary to be an engine of learning in order to persuade the public that the institution deserves support. The most noteworthy failure of stewardship I see is the failure to stimulate the intelligence of the population. This is a failure that can be reversed much more easily than mold in the basement.

I see huge educational potential everywhere I go. Last week in Warren County I visited the historical society and led a discussion exercise in which each trustee and volunteer was asked to tell one personal story of a connection to the county’s history. Two of the trustees spoke of personal research projects using primary documents in the collection. I encouraged them to share their passion for these materials with visitors. The person telling the story of research has to be regarded these days as “part of the collection” and “part of the display.”

Two others recounted memories of growing up just after World War II. These were “Boomer” stories, but they seemed to emerge from a time warp. The town of Warrenton had been electrified in the 19th century, but one museum trustee grew up in a rural home with kerosene lanterns. Another trustee remembered that when her father expected the water in a local creek to rise, he would park his car on the opposite bank. If he needed to drive somewhere, he would disrobe at the creek, wade across with his clothes held high, and dress on the other side.

As we sat around the table comparing those memories – Boomer memories, all of them – we began to imagine that one theme of that county museum has to be about “Town and Country.” The gap between Town and Country closed in our remembered past, and “country life” became so easy that Warren County attracted new people.

The most important assets of a museum or library are the people who engage the visitor’s intelligence and help it grow. A library that does not care about more and better "reading experiences" is not in a position to answer the question that is blowing in the wind. Why should a library be less interested in promoting that than Border’s or Barnes and Noble? If you look carefully at what retailers are doing these days, you’ll see more and more “staff recommendations.” I see them on the bulletin board at Whole Foods Market, too. Retailers are “personalizing” the experience, giving big places a human face and personality. I see this as part of the new, questioning wind.

You can catch this wind. It can fill the sail of your little boat. “So what, who cares?” demands the energy of motion. It’s up to you to make that motion refreshing, not just another blast of hot air.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Grandfather of Eight

"They all got married and they didn't hesitate,
I was, whoo!, Oh, Lord, the grandfather of eight."

I am called toward retirement.

With the beginning of another school year, this lifelong teacher is feeling the rush of possibility. Every year since I began Kindergarten I have felt a surge of positive energy at the end of the Summer. That energy was intense last year. I was bursting out of the cloud of grief over San’s death in June. This year I feel it and savor it as one savors the last sip of a good bottle of wine, because this year is my last as the leader of the Missouri Humanities Council. Each opportunity to shed light, to liberate creative energy, feels like a chance to pitch for a World Series win or to write a line as good as “Fourscore and seven years ago.”

I will retire on May 15. I am not leaving because the work has grown predictable. To the contrary, in the work of discovery, nothing is predictable, nothing is done by formula. It is all done by meeting people who want to be effective, who want to work their way out of knots and pockets of discouragement, and by thinking with them about “what if?” This work is done by learning about this or that town, or this or that subject, or this or that challenge, and seeing what can be done that is uplifting, constructive of human intelligence, and constructive of relationships.

I am “called” to my retirement as I was called to music, to writing, and to teaching. I am called to create what I hope will be a happy closing section in the story of my life. San felt that death cheated her out of sharing this part of life with me. We had been thinking of how and where we might spend it, and then we were suddenly focused on negotiating for the best quality that could be wrestled away from a quickening shortage of time.

In one sense, I owe it to San to live that wished-for final chapter, and I owe that chapter to Kathy, who married me in July. Before she died, San blessed me, and whoever would become my next love and marriage. Kathy and I feel as if our departed spouses nudged us toward each other. We belong together. Our life honors the lives of Tom Wofford and Sandra Bouman, and their parents and grandparents all the way back to Adam and Eve.

I think of retirement as a lived blessing. One of life’s miracles or graces is that an imagined good is instantly transported from the future to the present, so that it is spilled liberally on our path, a libation of goodness.

My cup of goodness includes eight grandchildren. The baby girl in the picture is my youngest, Arianah Wofford. This time last year, thanks to my daughter Jennifer's marriage in 2006 to Jared Steagall, I had two teenage grandchildren. Now Kathy has brought six younger ones into our big family. Until last month, when I met Arianah and her three siblings, I had not actually held and entertained a baby in thirty-six years! It was as if no time had passed. I am called to be a grandfather! Visiting my big family is now a calling.

In my new chapter, I imagine I will join the Y, and that I will volunteer in some form of teaching capacity. I would love to be a tour guide in a fine art museum, for instance. I would love to conduct a workshop on collage and Cubism in which the song lyrics of Bob Dylan were part of the mix. I would love to lead book discussions. I would love to write a form of music criticism that I haven’t seen much of since I last wrote a bit of it 35 years ago. I think the music critic has a social function to fulfill and that the function is to expand the intelligence of the reader.

Naturally, I will sing as long as I can with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. I will take Kathy to the opera, here, in New York, in Santa Fe, and who knows where else? She and I will develop our gardens and I will breed daylilies in the summer and dream about their beauties the rest of the time. If you want to see some of mine, just Google for Daylily Lay, and sing that name, don't just speak it.

Retirement is eight months away now. Until then, I'm going to have the time of my life in this work I love so well.